Shutting Down Side Projects

I finally shut down a website I had been running since 2009–over 13 years.

It was hard. The site was still generating income. And it felt like a huge inflection point was just around the corner. I'd had that feeling for many years–that I was one small change from huge growth.

But the reality was it hadn't been growing for a long time and required a non-trivial amount of attention and upkeep. Every month I had to pay bills, taxes, stay on top of alerts and broken scripts that kept the site up to date.

By far the biggest cost was the way the site absorbed my creative energy. Whenever I had a spare moment, my thoughts frequently gravitated towards how I would improve the site: design a new feature, rearchitect a component, or driving a new growth tractic. When I actually set about to implement those ideas, my creative thoughts were dominated by them until they were completed, which often took weeks at a time.

Now that I've finally flipped the off-switch, I feel like I've opened up a huge expanse in my head. It feels liberating. I wish I had done it sooner.

Cost of Carry

There's a concept in software engineering called the "cost of carry". Every new feature brings along with it additional complexity, and makes adding features in the future more expensive. I believe that every personal side-project has a cost of carry. The most obvious and impactful cost is the opportunity cost of the project. What else you could be thinking about and making progress against? Your brain has limited slots for Work-in-progress (WIP). Filling that finite space isn't something you should take lightly. You should also reevaluate what deserves that space on a regular basis.

For long-running side projects this cost of carry can be quite high. But in the moment, all you can think about is "I'd be crazy to pull the plug! What would my users think?"

Certainly not all side-projects are bad. Especially those that have very minimal cost of carry. I have a chrome extension I haven't had to touch for years and it provides a nice service to hundreds of users (including myself). I'd love to have a portfolio of those.

Power of Elimination

Shutting down a side-project is really about being honest with your priorities, and being comfortable with ruthless elimination.

There's an interesting story about Warren Buffett teaching his pilot about prioritization1. He asks the pilot to write down his top 25 goals, and then review the list and circle the top five most important ones. This all sounds straight-forward, except then Buffett tells the pilot that the remaining 20 goals are the "Avoid-At-All-Cost list". You don't do anything with those until you acheive your top five.

That's painful advice to follow through on. It means you need to kill off some of your goals, because they're important, but not important enough.

Time and focus are limited. So sometimes you really do need to pull the plug.